Browse Reading Guides


Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageOrfeo: A Novel

    Richard Powers

    New York Times Bestseller

    "Bravo, Richard Powers, for hitting so many high notes with Orfeo and contributing to the fraction of books that really matter." —Heller McAlpin, NPR

Discussion Questions

  1. The story of Orfeo, or Orpheus, is a Greek myth about a musician’s descent into Hades to retrieve his dead beloved and return her to the land of the living. In what ways is Orfeo the story of a musician’s descent into hell and his attempted act of resurrection?
  2. The power of music over memory and time is an essential part of this book. How does music generate nostalgia in Orfeo’s characters?
  3. Els often compares events and processes in the natural world to music. What connections does he hear between music and living things?
  4. Els’s dedication to music leads him to make sacrifices. In what ways do these sacrifices hurt him or help him? Are sacrifices like his worth it?
  5. Is Els a terrorist? Why or why not? What is he trying to accomplish by his fugitive tweets?
  6. What do Els’s interests—music and chemistry—have in common? Why does his musical composition take a biological turn?
  7. Fear is a prevalent theme throughout the book. In what ways are characters afraid? What is art’s relationship to fear?
  8. At different times in his life, Els lives with his wife and daughter, by himself, and with his dog, Fidelio. What do Els’s living situations reveal about him and his art at these different times?
  9. Why is Els often unsatisfied with his compositions? What do you think he is looking for?
  10. What do you think Els is trying to accomplish on his road trip, and does he succeed?
  11. How does the novel use words to describe the wordless phenomenon of music? In what ways does Powers try to bring alive various challenging works of twentieth-century music? How much do we need to know in order to love a musical work? Can words ever add to the pleasure of listening?
  12. In the final scene, what do you think happens when Els walks out the door? How is that choice like the others in his life? What does this action signify, as his final “composition”?

Richard Powers discusses Orfeo

Richard Powers reads from Orfeo


Filmed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on November 21, 2014. Richard Powers reads from Orfeo with The Nouveau Classical Project and Kamea String Quartet performing music from the novel. A presentation of The Center for Fiction.

About Richard Powers

Richard Powers is the author of twelve novels. His most recent, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award, and he has been a four-time National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Books by Richard Powers

  1. Book CoverOrfeo: A Novel

    New York Times Bestseller

    "Bravo, Richard Powers, for hitting so many high notes with Orfeo and contributing to the fraction of books that really matter." —Heller McAlpin, NPRMore

  2. Book CoverThe Overstory: A Novel

    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
    Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
    New York Times Bestseller
    A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018

    "The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period." —Ann PatchettMore